Free public Wi-Fi can be a lifesaver, but since many networks are unsecured, those who connect to them are putting their information at risk. According to Symantec’s 2017 Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report, which collected over 15,000 survey responses in 15 countries, 60 percent of users felt that “their personal information is safe when using public Wi-Fi,” and that “53 percent can’t tell the difference between a secure or unsecure [sic] public Wi-Fi network.” Meanwhile, Symantec also found that 594 million people around the world were victims of cybercrime in 2015.
How to Know if a Network is Unsecured
A Wi-Fi connection is unsecured if users do not have to use a password to access it. These networks are common in coffee shops, stores, and even subway stops in some cities. Unsecured networks leave users vulnerable to cybercriminals attempting to steal personal information, which could lead to identity theft.
What Kind of Online Behavior Puts Your Information at Risk?
Symantec’s survey asks consumers “which of the following have you done on your mobile phone, tablet, or laptop while connected to a public Wi-Fi network?” The question lists the following as risky behavior:
- Logging into accounts that use a password (personal and work email accounts, social media, etc.)
- Sharing photos or videos
- Checking bank account or accessing financial information
- Sharing travel plans or location information
- Sending a work document
- Entering personally identifiable information (e.g., social security number, birthday, address)
- Entering credit card information
- Managing connected home device (e.g., thermostat, home entry, baby monitor, etc.)
Collectively, 83 percent of users admitted to engaging in at least one of risky behavior.
How to Protect Your Information
For consumers who make the conscious choice to continue using public, unsecured Wi-Fi networks, there are still steps to take to increase security. Below are a few ways consumers can protect their information. A more comprehensive list can be found here and here.
- Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
Many sites list using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, as one of the best methods to secure and protect personal information. According to Symantec, VPNs provide “a ‘secure tunnel’ that encrypts data being sent and received” between devices and the internet.
Symantec’s report found that 75 percent of people do not use a VPN, and among that 75 percent, 29 percent had never heard of a VPN before the survey. Many VPNs cost money, but there are also a few free ones. Opera browser has a built-in VPN, which may be helpful for those who do not want to pay extra money every month for a VPN. For more information, CNET has a list of the best VPN services for 2018.
- Look for HTTPS in the URL
When visiting websites on unsecured or secure Wi-Fi, it is always good to check if the website’s URL has “HTTPS,” or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. A green lock in the URL box also will indicate if the website is secure. HTTPS, according to CNET, means that the site is encrypted, which means that the information is stored, but “while these websites may be encrypted, consumer information is not entirely safe from hackers.”
- Use Your Judgment and Choose the Right Network
In locations that are known to have free Wi-Fi, cybercriminals may set up a fake network to trap consumers. Fake networks can be difficult to detect, but LifeHacker writes that names like “Free Airport Wi-Fi” and “Free Wi-Fi Here!” can be examples of networks to avoid. Networks provided by coffee shops and stores within the airport may be more trustworthy.